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Vision Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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23rd Annual Vision Festival
Roulette
New York, NY
May 23-28, 2018

Introduction

The Vision Festival somewhat surprisingly but reassuringly stands proud as the longest-lived annually produced jazz festival in New York. While the central plank remains what the Festival terms avant jazz, it's interspersed with poetry, dance, art, and film in a way which matches rather than detracts from the music. For its 23rd edition the Festival returned to Brooklyn's Roulette after three years in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where there was more space but problematic acoustics. Aside from the music, some of the great things about Vision are its comparatively small size, the warmth of a community coming together and single venue location. It remains the pre-eminent place to hear many of the luminaries in what can loosely be termed American free jazz in a short span of time, and as a consequence attracts attendees from across the globe to its six days of festivities.

Dave Burrell Celebration

Every year the Vision Festival honors one of its own with an evening's celebration. Past celebrants have included Sam Rivers, Fred Anderson, Muhal Richard Abrams, Kidd Jordan, Marshall Allen, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Henry Grimes, Peter Brötzmann and Joe McPhee. This year the deserving recipient was pianist Dave Burrell who was showcased in three sets which kick-started the Festival out of the start gate with a bang. Burrell first came to prominence as one of the few pianists able to chisel out a niche in the in the 1960s New Thing. Since then he's enjoyed long associations with saxophonist David Murray and bassist William Parker, but has also fashioned a body of work which attests to his interest in not only forward looking practices but also in more traditional forms such as ragtime and stride piano as well as classical opera. The sold out evening provided a suitably widescreen appreciation of Burrell's art.

For the first set Burrell mustered an all star crew to present his most recent project Harlem Renaissance, inspired by the 1918-38 artistic flowering in Harlem. Straight from the opening "Paradox Of Freedom" the tight arrangements made it clear that this was a well-rehearsed band. The transitions between the bluesy tilt set out in the opening and the unfettered autonomy which blossomed from alto saxophonist Darius Jones' curdled sustains and trombonist Steve Swell's blustery fanfares were glorious. This was one of the most convincing ensemble readings of Burrell's music ever and how fitting that it came on an evening of celebration.

A dirge-like unison heralded a darker more yearning ambience in "Full-Blown Rhapsody," illuminated by an electrifying unison shriek from Swell and Jones. Here too Burrell sprang into freeform thunder as Jones began to smolder. The final number "Red Summer March" began with drummer Andrew Cyrille's unaccompanied tattoo, referencing marching licks with a broad grin. A bass drum fusillade released the tension, leading to a series of overlapping rhythms which recalled Anthony Braxton, while bassist Harrison Bankhead kept up a two note pulse. Up till this point Burrell had been content for his conception to stand center stage, but here he too took a solo, off kilter meter vying with backhand flicks, merging with Cyrille's rat-ta-tat. It was a fantastic start to the evening and constituted one of the best ever Vision opening sets.

And there was more to come. One of the young Burrell's first major employers was saxophonist Archie Shepp, and tonight they were reunited, a day short of the reedman's 81st birthday, for the first time in almost a decade. Billed as the Archie Shepp Quartet, the pair were joined by the stellar rhythm pairing of William Parker and Hamid Drake, to revisit some of Shepp's extensive back catalogue. Although past dental problems mean the saxophonist uses a curious embouchure which envelops the mouthpiece, what he lacks in precision he more than makes up for in feeling. That was obvious from the opening notes of "Sonny" his tribute to Rollins, which he endowed with rough hewn muscularity, against pneumatic backing from Parker and Drake. Burrell's splendidly askew comping both punctuated and complemented Shepp throughout as they rolled back the years.

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